Cult, Charisma, and Convocation

Kevin Dooley, Cult directions, Flickr CC BY 2.0
Kevin Dooley, Cult directions, Flickr CC BY 2.0

Reader says she quit cult of SRF after 37 years.

I regularly get emails from readers. Here’s a short message from one and a few of my comments below:

“Thank you for your website. I used to be in SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) for 37 years. I realized that it is a cult, like all religions. I still like to meditate each morning and I do biofeedback to help put myself into a parasympathetic state before I start work. I think Yogananda[1] was a very charismatic person. I no longer believe in Gurus. I distrust organized religion. I used to go to Convocation[2] and could never get into the Daya Mata[3] worship.  She always seemed like an overly conservative, uptight person. I appreciate what you write about on your website, and your way of thinking critically.”

My Comments/Notes

1 Paramahansa Yogananda is the yoga-master, guru-founder of Self-Realization Fellowship. For a critique of Yogananda’s extraordinary claims about meditation, read my posts Can Yogis Stop Their Heart? and The Evidence Against Breathlessness and Samadhi 

2 SRF’s Convocation is a weeklong convention were thousands of SRF monastics, volunteers, and devotees from around the world converge each summer at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

While I was a monk, I participated each year in the SRF Convocations. The monastics and volunteer lay members worked 14-18 hours each day to run the event behind the curtain and at the Bonaventure.

The first five years of my life in the SRF Monastic Order I enthusiastically served at Convocation in a labor of love. I tolerated the 18 hour work shifts at the Bonaventure Hotel. By my sixth, seventh, and eighth Convocation I found the event, the monastic speakers, and the topics were monotonous and formulaic: How to Meditate, Finding God in Daily Life, Keys to Happiness, Surrendering to God, etc. etc.

For SRF’s perspective on highlights from Convocations see this page on their official SRF website: http://www.yogananda-srf.org/convocation/Highlights_From_Past_Convocations.aspx#.VgCLVGRViko

The SRF Convocation gets 4,000 attendees each year. During the last 20 years, the Convocation nor the SRF organization as a whole has increased membership. The SRF apparently aquires new members at the same rate they lose members. The same goes for the Monastic Order: the ranks of SRF monks and nuns doesn’t appear to grow much if any.

3 Daya Mata is the late President of SRF who died in December 2010. I write about several of my encounters with Daya Ma in Darshan: Mind-Reading Saints and Ashram Politics

Daya Mata was originally a Mormon living in Salt Lake City Utah. At age 17 she met Yogananda during one of his public lectures in Salt Lake City. She then left home with her parents permission to live with Yogananda in his ashram in Los Angeles.

Daya Mata was succeeded by the present President of SRF, Mrinalini Mata Mrinalini Mata entered the SRF Monastic Order at the tender age of 15. For more about her, see this article in the Los Angeles Times

Creator of Skeptic Meditations
37 comments
  1. I have learned much about the SRF by reading this blog and comments like this from readers. Learning how we are tricked, woed, enlisted, used, awed and comforted is amazing.

    Here I have written about the word “Cult” and hopefully illustrated some of the caution we should get in using this word.

    Interestingly, people in these groups labeled as cults jump into other religious groups which are more acceptable, yet carry many of the odd characteristics as their former “cults” did. So what is a “cult” — it is a abstract tool to tell us your feelings about a group.

  2. @Sabio: I don’t blame SRF, the organization or its people, for tricking, wooing or enlisting me. I take full responsibility for choosing to enlist myself. At the time, it made sense to me and it was what I was committed to. I learned a few lessons and met some good people along the way. I could’ve learned the lessons some other way I suppose that wasn’t my journey.

    Yes. The word “cult” ought to be used with caution. The reader who wrote the message used the word cult and it seems to portrayed her attitude and feelings about the organization of SRF.

    Thanks for your comments. I’ll check out your post on your great blog.

  3. @ Scott,
    So I would be interested if you find and of the 4 qualities listed in my post for “Dangerous Groups” in SRF? I wonder if your reader who wrote this would agree with you. THOSE differences would be fascinating.

    For example, in your post on stopping hearts — you tell us that no science experiments have verified claims of actually stopping the heart the way yogis, including your founder, did. So that would fall under deception. It sounds a bit totalitarian too — not open to democratic processes. And questioning is not tolerated, correct? Also, if I remember correctly, it encourages break up with family, no? Are their secret ceremonies too. See the list if you have time.

    Sure, it was your decision, but were you lured by a particular kind of unhealthy group — free willed or not?

  4. @Sabio: Here’s my top of mind reply to your question about which top qualities I think that SRF exhibited from your diagram of “cults dangerours groups” https://triangulations.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/cults_danerous_groups1.png:

    The qualities noted below I give with a weak, moderate, or strong rating, seemed rather obvious to me.

    Coercive and Violent
    attack critics — weak to moderate, example: SRF was in decades long litigation with Ananda group who they said was “distorting” Yogananda’s teachings.

    Isolative and Secretive
    promotes breaks with family — moderate, example: Yogananda wrote “Environment is stronger than will” and quoted bible about you must be willing to give up father and mother for me [paraphrase from new testament, and these kinds of sentiments that you needed to hang out with other SRF-sympathetic people
    promotes us and them – weak. But strong especially for SRF Monastic Order versus those who live “in the world”
    promotes break with society – weak for general members. Very strong primarily for SRF Monastics versus those who live “in the world”
    secret doctrines and documents – weak. SRF lessons are for “members” only
    secret ceremonies – Moderate-strong. Kriya Yoga initiations (2nd, 3rd, 4th Kriyas, etc) is the guru-disciple baptism of the SRF church

    Totalitarian
    leader beyond reproach – strong. Yogananda and President (top leaders) of the SRF were considered infallible.

    Deceptive
    Withholding information – Strong. SRF top leaders typically only provided glossy, glowing, perfect “saintly” accounts of Yogananda and chief disciples/leaders (SRF seldom if ever humanized or discussed mistakes or mishaps of Yogananda or leaders)

    It would be interesting to poll or survey readers about these qualities and their “opinion” of SRF in relation to them. I’d have to think about how to do a survey like that sometime.
    thanks

  5. Thanks for going through the analysis, Scott.

    Now, note that above you said: “I don’t blame SRF, the organization or its people, for tricking, wooing or enlisting me.”

    If SRF had all the above dangerous and wrong practices, then there should be blame, no? Sure, on yourself for falling for this, but also on them. Otherwise, it sounds like Stockholm Syndrome — a classic for these sort of groups.

    What do you think? What do your readers think?

    I often get the impression in my of your posts that you are trying to imply something, but don’t go all the way. As if part of your mind won’t let you admit the wrong – won’t let you take a stance.

    The “I still meditate” line is probably complicated in ex-SRF folks too. They are either comforting their cognitive dissonance by saying “See, there was value in all those years of mediating.” or perhaps there is some value. But I would wager the former weighs far more heavily than any can comfortably admit.

    Well, that is enough material for several posts.

    Again, thanks for going through my post and see what dangerous practices apply to SRF.

    To me it sounds like a deceptive, mind-washing, coercive group that attracts certain personality types who then justify their lives around all those negative traits.

  6. @Sabio: Maybe you are right. Though, I think you are trying to read more into my post or wonder if you want me to take the stand against SRF that you think I should. I’m happy to consider new ways of taking a “stance”. I haven’t heard or thought of what that might be yet. Thanks for your comments.

  7. Just a quick thought. Sometimes it’s better to say “I don’t know” than to take a stance. I’m starting to notice that we all feel we must figure it all out, when in fact no one really knows what the duces is going on in this life of ours. It’s in our nature to want to have the final word on things, but that can be a trap.

  8. @ Scott,
    Nah, I don’t care if you “take the stand against SRF” or not. I was just trying to point out the cognitive dissonance and other phenomena.

    A post on: “Dangerous aspects of SRF” would be interesting, but it seems you would not want to do that. Am I correct?

  9. @ Uw
    Well, if a group is potentially dangerous to your social relationships, your career, your health, your self-esteem and more, then “taking a stance” is incredibly important. Don’t you agree?

  10. When you put it that way, I would definitely agree. But, I’m not sure myself if these religious organizations and/or cults are as potentially dangerous as you may believe. They are very helpful in their way to keep people feeling safe and secure in an otherwise very scary world. Now, one could argue that ultimately comforting oneself with beliefs and dogma is dangerous, but people do this in a thousand different ways. Politics does the same thing. So, I guess I’m saying that to say “I don’t know” is ok, because it might be just as stifling to be rigid about an opinion and therefore be just as dogmatic as religion or political affiliation are. Oy, I dashed that one off. I hope it makes sense….maybe I’m making no sense. It sure is a fascinating conversation.

  11. @Uwsboi14: I agree with you. Indeed, pretending to know things we don’t can be harmful (and dangerous). I’ve outlined my position at my blog post: “I Don’t Know”: The 3 Hardest Words In The English Language

    Thanks

  12. @Sabio: I’m a huge fan and advocate of you and your work/blog. I like your suggestions and think you are on to something I’d like to explore and discuss on this blog. I may need to incubate my ideas before I hatch them into words.

    I appreciate constructive feedback and knowing what readers are interested in.

    Thanks

  13. @uwsboi14: I understand saying I’m not sure or I don’t know. However, I think there’s times when we ought not to remain satisfied with that “answer” or settling with “we can never know” on some topics.

    Simply saying “I don’t know” isn’t a solution. Its only a first step.

    I’ll stew on ideas for future blog discussions. I’d love to facilitate conversations that would help educate or give us insights.

    If you could ask anything of an expert on the topics we are discussing on this website, what would you ask?

    Thanks for your comments

  14. @ UWS
    You said, “But, I’m not sure myself if these religious organizations and/or cults are as potentially dangerous as you may believe. They are very helpful in their way to keep people feeling safe and secure in an otherwise very scary world.”

    First, if you’ll read my comment above, and especially the link to my post, you’ll see that I am very hesitant to call any group a “cult”. Instead, it is important to call out the dangerous behaviors I listed (and that Scott explored), no matter what supposed felt benefits a group may offer. Such “benefits” may come at a big price.

    So imagine that someone approaches a kid who is lost and confused, be they Christian Science, Mormons, Scientologists, fervent Snake Handling Christians, Hare Krishnas, angry Anarchists or a promising Multi-Level marketing group. Should the kid just take your advice and say, “Well, UW tells me that “I don’t know is OK”, so I will just join up with whoever gives me comfort since we can’t know any truth really anyway?

    Instead, I promote discernment — taking a stance on dangerous stuff that we know should be avoided. Analyze the group: their claims and their practices — especially their practices.

  15. @ Scott

    If you only have a few comment, hierarchy comments can help. But you can see here, we are losing the timeline of the conversation. I forgot if I have pointed out this flaw of these sort of comments yet:
    https://triangulations.wordpress.com/2011/09/10/stop-comment-hierarchy/

  16. @Sabio: You are correct. I had my comments set to hierarchy 3 deep. I’ve turned that feature off and will try that. Thanks much for your suggestions

  17. Scott,

    It is so good to hear your opinion on this issue. You speak very negatively here both again the practices and the psychological abuse of monks. Which contrasts with your comment a few posts ago where you said, “I don’t blame SRF, the organization or its people, for tricking, wooing or enlisting me. I take full responsibility for choosing to enlist myself.”

    It is good to hear the opinions of a monk who was duped for 14 years judge right-and-wrong in an organization and people who they once depended on for meaning.

    In this post you said,

    “The appeal of Eastern wisdom for Westerners comes in the form of gurus, spiritual masters, and divine authorities.”

    I’d be careful generalizing. Many Westerners go to Eastern religions to escape authority — forms of pop Zen are very much like that. You are assuming that Indian Guru worship is what everyone does. Attraction to Daoism, for instance is very different for many Westerns — another “Eastern wisdom”.

  18. Whooops, sorry, out the above comment in the wrong post.

  19. Hi Scott, there a couple of observations I’ve been having about the teachings of SRF. They seem to revolve consistently around the parent/child dynamic.

    1) Man’s relationship to God is that of a child to a parent. God can either father or mother.
    2) Man is unaware of this relationship due to the evil forces of maya/delusion initially created by the parent God
    3) Man has run away from God like a naughty child. It’s not clear why man is to blame, but he is.
    4) Man must return to the parent God in order to be worthy of receiving enlightenment/samadhi/final liberation.
    5) The ultimate realization is that man is already one with God, he just doesn’t know it.
    6) The parent God set the whole thing up to test to see who loves him more than the things in his creation. According to the teachings, God has every right to test us because we’ve been naughty and wandered away.
    7) Once man vows to follow a Guru and his religious organization whom the parent God has sent to him, he is inextricably bound to follow the guru’s instructions until he attains the final liberation, otherwise he will be lost for incarnations, only to then find the guru again in another life and give it another go.

    These basic concepts make for a very good foundation on which to build a cult. Everyone has feelings from childhood still brewing in them, so the parent God concept works like magic on those who are vulnerable and in the middle of a crisis. Plus, to ultimately realize that you are just as extraordinarily amazing as God himself, who would pass that up, especially when you are filled with pain, confusion, and feelings of isolation?

    I’m sure these metaphysics are not unique to SRF, but they are drummed over and over again by the teachings/organization so that the devotee’s mind is deeply imprinted with them.

  20. One last thought: if it could be proven that a religious path is merely a projection of the inner mental landscape and culture of the founder, then the teachings of SRF are more about Yogananda himself than any ultimate truth or reality. I can’t commit to this statement yet, but am throwing it out there for any feedback.

  21. Hi uwsboi14: Excellent points!

    When critical thinking is labeled delusion, ego, or ignorance and only the guru or religious authorities have revealed knowledge, what is left? There’s little option but to trust the enlightened teacher/master and to take his every word as the highest authority. All lesser beings are nothing compared to the divinity of the masters and advanced disciples. Self-trust is vile, is delusion, unless we surrender and bow to spiritual authority.

    Not everyone can quickly see the danger in the charismatic leaders and their special Dispensations.
    Thanks for your comments

  22. @uwsboi14: Yes, I think you are on to something. Keep us posted when you get more insights.

    Yogananda’s/SRF’s spiritual teachings appear to be nothing new. See my post Religious Foundations of Modern Yoga. And, my post Origins of Modern Yoga that traces Hindu Bengali Christianity, New Age, and Occult and to Paramahansa Yogananda’s blatant imitation of Swami Vivekananda (read my post on him).

  23. I thought I share this compassionate statement made by a professor of psychiatry. I wouldn’t say all people that join cults are “normal”, but to his point, joining a cult doesn’t mean you’re crazy either.

    “People who end up in cults are normal people. They are usually intelligent, open-minded and honest. They’re willing to make sacrifices for the greater good of the group. They’re interested in self-improvement and in the improvement of the world. The best kinds of people, in a way, are targeted by cults. Their very decency makes them desirable as cult members.”

    Dr J W West, Professor of Psychiatry, University of California

  24. @uwsboi14
    I have long argued against fellow atheists that being a theist does not necessarily make one crazy — actually, rarely. These adamant black-and-white atheists see religions as merely a set of logical propositions, which, of course, they are not.
    I agree with West’s quote, but also, many folks joining these groups are incredibly needy and lost — and far from psychological healthy (if there is such a state). But not crazy.

    Hell, “crazy” is a difficult category all-together, isn’t it?

  25. I like your attitude, it’s refreshing. Cheers.

  26. @uwsboi14: Terms like “cult” and “crazy” are not very helpful. Even words like “spiritual” and “religious” are tricky terms as they don’t really tell us much unless we define them and agree on how to use them to have a productive discussion. These are my general findings and I often fall prey to using these words loosely, unproductively.

    Dangerous cults or dangerous authorities discourage the self-trust in their members, to not think for themselves, and to not act independently. These three factors (self-trust, thinking for oneself, and acting independently) are taboo and labelled selfish, ego, and the path to delusion. Members need to learn to think for themselves and to act independently to “self-realize” so they don’t need to surrender to gurus or “divine” authorities.

    @sabio: Thanks for your insights and comments.

  27. Here’s a very interesting article I found. Perhaps you will find some good information here for your work:

    http://www.fairobserver.com/region/north_america/cult-attraction-is-not-a-problem-of-logic-90134/

    Cheers.

  28. Thanks for sharing the article, uwsboi14. I’ll read.

    I see Scientology is mentioned. Have you seen the HBO documentary Going Clear on Scientology? I recommend this excellent and spooky film. The differences between the “cults*”, Scientology and SRF, are only matters of degree and not in kind.

    *cults = authoritarian, closed groups that are difficult to exit, members are punished/belittled for questioning the authority of the leaders and/or shunned or shamed if members leave the group

  29. Here’s my follow up to “One last thought: if it could be proven that a religious path is merely a projection of the inner mental landscape and culture of the founder, then the teachings of SRF are more about Yogananda himself than any ultimate truth or reality.”

    When I was 10 years old, I had a traumatic experience which frightened me so much that I turned to the Bible for answers. The trauma was caused by a certain kind of abandonment, loss, and isolation. So, for a year I became a Christian fundamentalist. I turned to my culture’s particular religion, Christianity. In it I found paradoxically both justification for and an escape from my overwhelming emotions. Luckily, the fanaticism wore off after a year and I returned to my usual self, with a few remaining scars.

    Unfortunately, I had developed a tendency towards black and white thinking. With that in mind, I hope the following “thesis” does not use black and white concepts also. My goal is to try and explain the origins of Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in humanistic terms. I’ve also hesitated to come to conclusions as well, which is why I’ve put things in the form of questions. I have spent my life trying to arrive at the ultimate truth, that happy harbor of assured safety, and have found I closed my mind and feelings in the process.

    So, here goes…

    When Yogananda was 11 years old his dearly loved mother died without him being by her side. In his inconsolable grief, he turned to his particular culture’s belief in the power of meditation. There he experienced a vision and the voice of “Divine Mother”. This powerful spiritual experience became the foundation of his own spiritual path. A decade later he would start a religious organization in the US, Self-Realization Fellowship, which promotes the concept of a feminine God, simply named Divine Mother. The devotee of this path is exhorted to call upon the presence of Divine Mother in meditation, for according to Yogananda, “the mother is closer than the father”. This feminine deity is described as both benevolent and punishing depending on how the devotee/child needs to learn his life lessons. Yogananda’s word as the guru is considered by his followers to be the voice of Divine Mother herself. Therefore, he is infallible in his judgements and instructions to perfect the devotee/child. All methods employed by the guru, from loving to humiliating punishment, are acceptable and seen as blessings from the divine.

    Considering again the child Yogananda’s early spiritual experience, I wonder if his particular solution to his traumatic experience was simply an escape rather than a real resolution. Surely, if a child has no one from whom he can receive consolation in his overwhelming grief and loss, escape is the only way to survive. Yogananda was brought up on meditation and a belief in gurus, divine powers, divine beings, mother Kali, etc. His spiritual experience is in keeping with the beliefs of his culture. And driven by heightened inner pain, he found what he was looking for, a mother who would never die and who would never abandon him again. Is there anything morally wrong in that? No, of course not. But, when one turns their spiritual experiences into a religious path for all people, I begin to wonder if there are unconscious motives at work:

    1) Is the leader’s spiritual formula in fact a dysfunctional coping mechanism which can only breed more dysfunction and confusion?
    2) What happened to the original feelings of anger, grief, and disillusionment? Were they completely resolved or have they persisted unconsciously and have found new expression in the act of changing and dominating others?

    I could never understand why Yogananda praised Hitler and Mussolini. If my explanation of the genesis of SRF is accurate, though, it makes sense that he would be impressed by these dictators’ ability to dominate and control whole nations. Yogananda also had a well known ferocious temper.

    1) Is there really such a thing as a benevolent dictator?
    2) Can there be any true moral justification for someone demanding absolute allegiance from another person?
    3) When the devotee sees his/her absolute allegiance to a guru as spiritual, does it make it so, or is the devotee only justifying self abandonment and escape tactics?

    Thanks for reading.

  30. “Surely, if a child has no one from whom he can receive consolation in his overwhelming grief and loss, escape is the only way to survive. ” Does this predicament sound similar to the isolation which SRF monks have to endure? Seems like Yogananda’s childhood terror of abandonment is being forced upon his own followers.

  31. Thanks, uwsboi14, for your psychological expose’ on Yogananda. I wonder if we could use all or portions of it for a guest post? I’ll take a look again and followup with you if you are interested in that.

    Regarding benevolent dictators: Hindsight makes it easy to say Hitler and Mussolini were monsters. Hitler and other dictators do occasionally do good to their societies and countries. Saddam Hussein kept law and order in Iraq. After his execution up to today the country is a hornets nest of violence. Hitler got Germany out of a depression, got people jobs (building war weapons, joining social programs), building the autobahn, modernizing factories and equipment.

    But I think you are right that Yogananda was probably an ego-maniac and a sociopath who sought confirmation, adulation and control over followers.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  32. Yes, Uwsboi14, sorrow, grief and anguished pursuit of divine romance for Mother God was at the heart of Yogananda’s teachings and the Monastic Life. One of Yogananda’s favorite and oft quoted poems was Franics Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven https://www.ewtn.com/library/HUMANITY/HNDHVN.HTM:

    ” Halts by me that footfall:
    Is my gloom, after all,
    Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
    ‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
    I am He Whom thou seekest!
    Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’

  33. @ uwsboi14

    Fantastic expose ! Well written and clear thinking — and best yet, educational for me. Thanx.
    Oh, and I don’t know if I have already suggested this, but with all the writing and sharing you do in comment, setting up a simple about page on WordPress or BlogSpot might be real helpful in your dialogues. It wouldn’t make you a blogger, but just let you share more easily a few of your major points.
    See my post here, if you’d like:

    @ Scott (SkepticMed),

    You agreed with uwsboi14 saying “But I think you are right that Yogananda was probably an ego-maniac and a sociopath who sought confirmation, adulation and control over followers.”

    I think you are more bold to take positions on this — more ready to discern, recognize and publicly decry deep unhealthy patterns than you were 1 year ago. This blog is possibly for you a unraveling process for you. That is a good thing.

    You are probably more willing to point out the bad (if not outright dangerous and possibly evil) things about SRF now — both the organization and people (without naming names — except of the deceased perhaps.)

    Again, uwsboi14 was really fine.

  34. Thanks, guys! 🙂 Thanks to Scott for making it possible to be open and honest about how we feel and what we think. There is one other forums for SRFers out there where one can this too, but it’s more like huge gripe session and so it lacks the structure and in depth research you find here.

  35. SRF is a holding pond for treading water, until one realizes Jesus Christ was God as Man. Yogananda was a man seeking God, and fell into delusion thinking He was a god. His “autobiography” incorporated many Catholic saints, fooling the reader. Catholicism has the answers, was founded by Jesus Christ, and the Eucharist is the Bread of LIfe. Yogananda seemed to try to pull people away from this Bread of Life. I would often wonder why would Jesus start another religion, as I looked at His picture on the SRF altar. Now I realize SRF is the same as the heresy of Arianism, reducing Jesus to a man seeking God, like the other gurus. Towards the end, I would hear SRF comments that it was unfortunate Jesus’ mission was interrupted by the crucifixion. Interrupted? They said how could one man atone for all men? Well, the answer is, He was God, that is how. Seeking the Truth? Google Eucharist Miracles, and become Catholic!

  36. Carol, it must be nice to feel as confident as you do, having such faith in Jesus Christ. I mean that, and there must be great comfort and assurance in it, especially when life gets difficult. I prefer, however, not to know, not to have faith, not to believe in any spiritual personage these days. I know that probably sounds strange – it sounds strange to me as I write it. But, I think it may be possible to learn a lot from life itself, day by day, without a God as Man to tell me what I should think, do, say, or believe. Hey, I might even learn more without that third party interference. Peace.

  37. @Carol: Your experience with SRF and Yogananda’s teachings seems to have led you into your faith, into Catholicism. Could Yogananda indeed be “God as Man” for leading you to your Catholic God?

    I wrote a post about my religious evolution from Catholic to SRF From Christian-Catholic to Hindu-Yogic God

    If as the Bible says that with faith anything is possible, even to move mountains, I see no reason why faith could not imagine or believe in multiple God-Person (and such doctrines as the Holy Trinity of Catholicism).

    The human speculations that there are a god, gods or god-men adds layers of complexity that aren’t necessary. Since leaving SRF, I’ve found that the world makes more sense as it is without proposing that some divine being is somehow in charge of things.

    @uwsboi14: Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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